Primula vulgaris, the common primrose, is a species of flowering plant in the family Primulaceae, native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa, and parts of southwest Asia. The common name is primrose, or occasionally common primrose or English primrose to distinguish it from other Primula species also called primroses. None of these are closely related to the evening primroses (genus Oenothera).
The scientific name Primula is a diminutive of the Latin primus, "prime", alluding to the fact that this flower is among the first to appear in spring. The vernacular name has the same meaning: primrose derives from a late Latin form prima rosa, consisting of prima, "first" (feminine), and rosa, "rose".
Primula vulgaris is a perennial growing 10–30 cm (4–12 in) tall, with a basal rosette of leaves which are more-or-less evergreen in favoured habitats. It flowers in early spring in the northern hemisphere (February–April) on slopes and meadows.
The leaves are 5–25 cm long and 2–6 cm broad, often heavily wrinkled, with an irregularly crenate to dentate margin. The leaf blade is gradually attenuated towards the base and unevenly toothed. The single stem, extremely short, is hidden in the centre of the leaf rosette. The delicately scented flowers are 2–4 cm in diameter, borne singly on short slender stems.
The flowers are typically pale yellow, though white or pink forms are often seen in nature. The flowers are actinomorphic with a superior ovary which later forms a capsule opening by valves to release the small black seeds. The flowers are hermaphrodite but heterostylous; individual plants bear either pin flowers (longuistylous flower: with the capita of the style prominent) or thrum flowers (brevistylous flower: with the stamens prominent). Fertilisation can only take place between pin and thrum flowers. Pin-to-pin and thrum-to-thrum pollination is ineffective.
The native range of P. vulgaris encompasses western and southern Europe. In the north, the distribution area extends from central Norway near the Faroe Islands via the British Isles, Denmark, northern Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France to southern Portugal in the south and the tip of North Africa in Algeria. To the east, the range extends through the southern European peninsulas to the Crimea, Balkans, Syria, Turkey and Armenia.
In appropriate conditions, P. vulgaris can cover the ground in open woods and shaded hedgerows. It is found mainly by streams, under bushes, in orchards and clear, moist deciduous forests. Occasionally it also appears in meadows. In Central Europe plants thrive best on nutrient-rich, but lime-poor, humus-rich, loose and often stony loam soils in winter-mild situations. In more populated areas it has sometimes suffered from over-collection and theft so that few natural displays of primroses in abundance can now be found. However it is common on motorway verges and railway embankments where human intervention is restricted. To prevent excessive damage to the species, picking of primroses or the removal of primrose plants from the wild is illegal in many countries, e.g. the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Section 13, part 1b).
Most (90%) individuals are heterostylous, the minority monostylous. The flowers of the species are visited by a variety of insects, such as butterflies (Lepidoptera), Hymenoptera, beetles (Coleoptera) and Diptera. Which visitors pollinate plants is not fully established. However, good pollinators are said to be bumblebees and hairy flies of the genus Bombylius. However, the most common visitors to the flowers are small beetles of the genus Meligethes – often there are up to 12 or more pollen-covered individuals in a single flower. The beetles also fly from flower to flower and, at least theoretically, are well suited as pollinators.
- Primula vulgaris subsp. vulgaris. Western and southern Europe. As described above; flowers pale yellow.
- Primula vulgaris subsp. balearica (Willk.) W.W.Sm. & Forrest. Balearic Islands (endemic). Flowers white. Leaf stem longer than leaf blade.
- Primula vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii (Hoffmanns.) W.W.Sm. & Forrest. Balkans, southwest Asia. Flowers pink to red or purple.
- Primula vulgaris subsp. atlantica (Maire & Wilczek) Greuter & Burdet. Morocco to Algeria.
The primrose is distinguished from other species of Primula by its pale yellow (in the nominate subspecies) flowers produced singly on long flower stalks which are covered in rather shaggy hairs. The flowers open flat rather than concave as in the case of Primula veris, the cowslip.
A pink form is widely seen, growing amongst the much more common yellow forms; this may be a genetic variant rather than a garden escape. Occasional red forms are more likely to be naturalised from garden varieties.
The wild primrose is a staple of cottage garden plantings, and is widely available as seeds or young plants. It grows best in moist but well-drained soil in light shade. It is increased by seed and division. The throat is usually coloured rich yellow.
Primrose breeding of named coloured varieties became popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Numerous cultivars have been selected for garden planting, often derived from subsp. sibthorpii or hybrids between the subspecies; these and other garden hybrids are available in a wide range of colours, including white, yellow and red, or brown and red in all gradations as well as dark red, pink, purple, dark brown and dark blue, and with an extended flowering season.
The term Polyanthus, or Primula polyantha, refers to various tall-stemmed and multi-coloured strains of P. vulgaris × P. veris hybrids. Though perennial, they may be short-lived and are typically grown from seed or from young plants as biennials.
Both flowers and leaves are edible, the flavour ranging between mild lettuce and more bitter salad greens. The leaves can be cooked in soup but preferably with other plants because they are sometimes a little strong. The leaves can also be used for tea, and the young flowers can be made into primrose wine. In the past the whole plant and especially the root were considered to have analgesic, anti-spasmodic, diuretic and expectorant properties. It contains small amounts of saponins, and was given for colds. Primula vulgaris foliage contains significant amounts of vitamin C.
Primrose flowers, and the flowers of related members of the Primulaceae are often removed from their stalks and scattered on the ground by green finches apparently consuming the ovaries and nectaries.
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